Q&A with Marcus Buckingham
Marcus Buckingham: The catalyst for writing Find Your Strongest Life was a workshop that we did for The Oprah Show a year and a half ago. Most of my work has been in corporations, studying how you build an organization that helps people to identify and work to their strengths. Every company wants to know how to find and keep highly talented women in the workplace.
Then I got a call from the Oprah team saying they wanted to do a show on helping women to find success in their careers. We conducted a workshop for 30 talented but unfulfilled women, and the goal was to guide these women toward getting unstuck, to find a new trajectory for their careers and to discover the strength and the passion that they had lost—to help them examine their attitudes, beliefs and strengths, show them how to challenge the people who were holding them back and give them the courage they needed to move forward.
We did a workshop with Oprah sitting right there in the second row, then coached these women for five months, and then we did a show about it, presenting the Before, the Journey and the After. It was a good show, it was fun, and many of the 30 women seemed to have taken great steps. And that would have been plenty if that had been all that had happened. It wasn't.
Oprah.com was deluged with posts and questions from women wanting to take the conversation further. We received literally hundreds of thousands of questions: How do I find my strength in my life? When should I make choices on when to have children or not? How do I balance all the different competing demands that are made of me? How do I make sure that I am living a first-rate version of my own life, not a second-rate version of somebody else's life? We had 2.1 million people download the three-hour workshop. And I thought, "There are an awful lot of really good questions here that require a coherent, detailed, practical answer." I had been planning to write a book about how to live a strong life for a long time. With this outpouring of questions and interest, I knew I had to get to it right then.
MB: The leading data on women's happiness over the last 40 years is compelling and disappointing. Women have gained greater power, broader influence, higher education and more money. Women earn 60 percent of all MAs, and 37 percent of women are in senior management supervisory positions, compared to 31 percent of men. There are all sorts of significant advances in rights, responsibilities and influence that women have achieved over 40 years, but according to the research, during that same time period, women's daily life satisfaction has gone downhill consistently both relative to where they were 40 years ago and relative to men. Men are actually slightly happier now than they were, probably due to the slight increase in prosperity that we've had, while women's daily satisfaction has dropped steadily, even given that greater prosperity.
It's true of women in the work force, those not working, who have kids or don't, and it's true of 12th-grade girls. Over last 40 years, among 12th-graders who have been studied every single year, it's fairly clear now that boys' life satisfaction is trending up, while 12th-grade girls' life satisfaction is trending down. And over the last 15 years or so, consistently, 12th-grade girls are more anxious, more stressed and have less subjective well-being than boys.
As a researcher, I find this trend discouraging: Half of our population is experiencing decreasing net happiness and satisfaction with life. When we look at what makes people engaged and fulfilled with their lives, everyone from economists to psychologists seems to agree that the feeling of self-efficacy, feeling valued and effective and in your "strength zone" is critical—that the happiest, most successful people are those who have figured out ways to play to the best of themselves in each part of their lives. As an employee, wife, spouse, mother or daughter, they find themselves in situations or activities where they really feel that their strengths are engaged and called upon; they feel "in the zone." My work has centered at the intersection of those two knowledge bases—the research revealing the downward trend in women's life satisfaction and the understanding that your strength zone is one of the causes of life satisfaction and happiness—and I felt that this is an area where I have insight and can make a useful contribution.
MB: My career expertise is as a psychometrician—somebody who builds tests to measure personality. Companies would employ me to build interviews to measure the talents of people before they were hired. It has always fascinated me that when you ask an open-ended question of people who are really different in many ways, but are excellent at the same thing, they all somehow come to a similar conclusion. I would start with a study group of people who are excellent in a role and get them talking. My first client was Walt Disney World, and the first job I studied was housekeeping. I didn't know anything about housekeeping. I started off with eight housekeepers talking around a table. They didn't know each other; they were of different nationalities, women and men of varying ages and experience levels, and they were nervous and not saying much. But their reaction was amazing when I asked, "How do you know if a room is clean?" One woman said, "Well, I lie on the bed and turn on the ceiling fan." And everyone else around the table responded, "You do that too?" When I asked why, they all said, "It's the first thing that our guests do after a long day at the theme park; they flop on bed and turn on the ceiling fan. If dust comes off the top of the fan, it doesn't matter how clean the rest of the room is, the guest will think it's as dirty as the top of the fan."
When my focus was managers, I asked a variety of brilliant managers, "What's the best way to motivate somebody?" You can just imagine all the possible right answers: You should set career goals. You should praise them. The great managers all said exactly the same thing: "It depends on the person." That's when I knew that every great manager addresses each person as an individual. So, I'm not a very good housekeeper, I'm not a very good manager, and I'm clearly not a woman. My expertise has always been to study the best and see what they have in common.
To address all the questions from the Oprah.com community and to begin writing this book, I studied women who are happy and successful to see whether they shared anything that others could learn from. Those in our study group were not all financially successful, they were not all chief executives, nor were they all stay-at-home moms, but they all did share four feelings in common. First, they felt successful; they felt effective. Second, they instinctively looked forward to tomorrow; they positively anticipated the next day. Third, they reported frequent feelings of getting so involved in what they were doing—being so "in the zone"—that they lost track of time. Lastly, they reported that they were invigorated, even at the end of a long, busy day.
The women who felt those four emotions were all very different in the choices they'd made. Some stay at home, some don't; some see work as an essential part of their being, some see work as peripheral; some are massively ambitious, some are content to work at the same level for years; some are single, and some are married, and so on. Our focus then became: What, if anything, do they share? What, if anything, do they have in common?
We found the commonality among the most successful and fulfilled women—what it is they do differently, and I developed it into Find Your Strongest Life.
MB: One cause is an excess of choice. Life's tricky for women because they have to make more choices than men. And yes, choice is good, but boy, you better be an expert choice-maker. If you give us four pairs of jeans, we easily select our favorite, but given 47 pairs of jeans, we toss and turn about which one we should pick and then second-guess our choice, thinking perhaps that one of the other 46 was the right one. If your internal compass doesn't allow you to cut the 47 pair of jeans down to seven, making it easier to choose, you are challenged by the fact that you have gained more and more choice, and taken the responsibility of your decisions, but haven't relinquished any other responsibilities. For many women, the stress has become almost extreme. Most women don't get much help in knowing what choices will strengthen them or how to have a strong internal compass so they don't wonder about or regret the choices made.
Q: Your Strong Life Test is a unique profile-builder that helps women identify their Lead Role, the role they were born to play in life. How does it work, and what is its benefit to women?
MB: Life is really loud and demanding. I designed the Strong Life Test to help women quiet the noise and sort through the clamor of competing voices, expectations and demands in any situation that they face, whether as a spouse, relative, mother or employee. The Strong Life Test helps women recognize, given their lead role, what kind of strong moments they should look for. The test is like a compass; it helps you to know where to start to look, in any domain of your life, and to know what kind of moments are going to strengthen you the most, invigorate you the most, bring joy or excitement or fun, because that is who you are. It doesn't give you all answers; it doesn't indicate that you should start a certain type of business, but it tells you where to start.
The message is: You can draw strength from life. Life can fill you up if you know how to connect to it, and each of us connects differently. The Strong Life Test shows you how to connect.
MB: I think what stops many women initially is that they are so close to themselves that they are not aware of their uniqueness, and they don't really know what strengthens them, so they don't know where to begin to make change. It's hard to take action when you're not sure of what you're trying to move toward. The Strong Life Test is designed to provide that bit of distance to show you that you aren't the same as somebody else; you don't have to be the same sort of employee, wife or mother as everyone else.
Q: You write about finding our strong moments and deliberately re-creating them for a stronger life. Can you give us a few examples of strong moments that women may experience at work or home?
MB: Women tend to think of each role and responsibility in their lives as one entire responsibility that they have to do well, but in reality there are a whole variety of separate actions, activities and responsibilities in a career or in mothering. As a mother, a woman should consider which aspects or moments of motherhood really strengthen her, and deliberately go for those. If your lead role is Caretaker, that means the very essence of you is defined by being there for people; you always want to make sure that no one feels left out, you derive energy from moments when you see someone outside the circle and you draw them in closer to the "flames" and make them feel the warmth of being included. If that's the kind of person that you are—and not every woman is—that means that as a mother, you must be there for your kids to greet them every day. You have to honor yourself and figure out a way to make it happen, and be as serious about it as you are in picking a career. You don't want your children to feel outside the circle, and you have to accept it and make decisions accordingly. It might mean working at a place that has on-site daycare. Conversely, if you're not a Caretaker and you don't feel the need to pick your son up from school, that's fine; you must not beat yourself up that you're a "bad mom," which many do. There's another role that you play.
MB: I believe that we are all innately quite wise; most women are wiser than they think. When we make poor decisions, it's not because we've listened to our intuitions or yearnings too intensely, it's because we haven't listened to them enough.
The bottom line is that women are harder on themselves than men, so if you asked men, "Which do you think will help you be more successful in life, building on your strengths or fixing your weaknesses," 50 percent of men say "strength," and 50 percent say "fix my weaknesses." Women are at 27/73; 73 percent of women say, "I need to fix my weaknesses," and 27 percent of women say, "Build on my strengths." In general, women are spending an awful lot of time thinking, "Who am I not?" instead of thinking "What strong moments can I find in my life?" When you spend a lot of time doing that, you are spending your life thinking about what you don't have. That is a recipe for unhappiness. I hope, if nothing else, Find Your Strongest Life gives women the tools they need to be able to identify what strengthens them and build their lives around it; then it will have done its job.